Local softball team gets a chance to 'play ball'
Sharon Mechling remembers well the days of traveling all over western Pennsylvania, and even out of state, so her daughter could play summer softball.
It was the only option for Indiana County girls like Mechling’s daughter, Emily, and countless others who wanted to play beyond the high school softball season.
With no travel softball teams based in Indiana County, parents like Mechling carted their daughters to Pittsburgh and sometimes even farther so they could live out their softball dreams.
But that all changed almost two years ago, when Play Ball Sports opened its doors in White Township, finally affording local girls a chance to play travel ball without having to leave the county.
“With my daughter years ago, she played on a West Virginia team,” Mechling said. “She played on a local travel team in Pittsburgh, and then she was part of a West Virginia team. I am thankful that Play Ball Sports started a program because of having to go through it with my own daughter. I was traveling so much with her. We were all over the place for her. So it was nice when (Play Ball Sports) did come to me and said ‘Hey, we can do this.’ It’s nice that they brought it home.”
The brainchild of Indiana High School graduate and baseball lifer Rob Stossel, Play Ball Sports’ purpose is “to meet the needs of the baseball and softball community in Indiana County and surrounding areas,” the company’s mission statement reads on its website.
Furthermore, it goes on to say that Play Ball Sports’ vision is to provide “the area with a local state-of-the-art baseball and softball training facility.” It opened in August 2012, and “it has really taken off” in the past two years, Mechling says.
The former Homer-Center High School softball coach for seven years, Mechling joined the Play Ball Sports softball staff shortly thereafter.
Having seen the benefits of playing travel ball firsthand — Mechling’s daughter was recruited by Division III Marietta College in Ohio after being spotted at a summer tournament — Mechling joined the staff with hopes of helping other Indiana County players follow a similar path.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of helping girls get to the next level,” Mechling said. “Both of my kids have played at the next level. We went through it with my son and then my daughter, and I coached my daughter. I love to show the girls that they can play at the next level. It doesn’t have to be Division I or II. It can be Division III and it can get you a college education. That’s what I wanted to be a part of.
“When they approached me about being a coach on the upper team, the older girls, well, they asked me to coach, I told them I wanted the older girls, and they asked me why, and that’s why. I wanted to help these girls get to the next level. With softball, there’s no major leagues, there’s nothing for them (after college), but it’s something they can be a part of and have friends right away and get them through a college education that they can’t get anywhere else.”
In the summer of 2013, the first competitive season for Play Ball Sports’ Indiana County Explosion (ICE) teams, Mechling coached the 16U team. When most of those players moved up to the 18U level, Mechling followed them.
Their season culminates this week with a trip to Florida for the USSSA ESPN Road to Orlando World Series, a 32-team showcase featuring teams from all over the country.
As a 16U team last year with the majority of the current players on the roster, ICE had a stellar season, finishing in the top three at all five tournaments in which they played. They took first at one tournament, second at three others and third at another.
But the team learned less than three weeks prior to the World Series that it earned a spot in the tournament, and they had to pass up the chance to go because they lacked the time to raise funds to travel.
This year has been a different story. The team has struggled to a 2-18 record through four summer tournaments, including the IUP Showcase in early June.
“This year, we’re losing games 2-1, 4-3, 6-5, those kind of things,” Mechling said. “We’re playing good softball, but we’re not getting the wins we need. We’ve lost many heartbreakers.”
Under a new format, teams had to decide during the winter months if they wanted travel to the World Series so they have adequate time to raise travel funds. Mechling signed up her team, and the team left for Florida on Friday. ICE 18U opens the tournament with two games Sunday, against Brevard Breeze Elite (Florida) and Minnesota Thunderboltz. On Monday, they face North Jersey Spirit.
All teams are guaranteed a minimum of five games at the World Series, three in pool play and at least two in the double-elimination bracket play.
Throughout the season, 15 players have suited up for ICE 18U, but only 11 are making the trip to Florida: Homer-Center’s Claire Sasala, Natalie Sasala, Morgan Smith, Abby Yancy; Purchase Line’s Kira Smith, Kara St. Clair and Mikhala Stover; Marion Center’s Karlie Snyder and Courtney McMahan; Blairsville’s Shelby Oswald; and West Shamokin’s Leah Baum.
Players not making the trip who played throughout the summer are Homer-Center’s Rachel Worcester; Indiana’s Brooke Ruffner; Marion Center’s Hannah Peterson; and Punxsutawney’s Sydney Phillips.
The biggest benefit of a county-based travel team is evident to parents of players from throughout the county: Less travel time, especially during the winter months, when teams begin practice for the season.
“The thing that is so nice about having Play Ball Sports here is that everybody didn’t have to travel,” Mechling said. “These local teams and the better girls could stay here and they have a winter workout facility, which is an awesome thing. … What it did, the girls that maybe were local that were traveling to Pittsburgh can come back up here and play local. The winter practices were close and they didn’t have to worry.”